Saturday, May 19, 2007


An absorbing and Baffling way of writing, I've noticed, is the stuff you read from the eighteenth Century, when you can get it unedited and in its original form as Published. They seem to italicize words randomly. I used to think Nouns were the only things they'd italicize, and also Capitalize, but nope: there seems to be no pattern to it, Grammatically Speaking. Those of us who read the King James Bible growing up, did accustom ourselves to italicized minor words in sentences, because, as some may not realize, that reflects the addition of something that is not in the languages of origin, namely either Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. Which I always thought a funny thing to do, because the whole text, after all, is a translation. Why bother to reflect some arcane grammatical element of it, when entire sentence structures are completely changed? I always laughed when people read aloud from, say, the Scofield Bible, of which I had my Grandfather's old copy, and tried to stress words in italics. Always made for strange Readings. But eighteenth century stuff is different. All those documents by our Country's Founders, for instance. Sometimes you can tell it's for Stress, but often it seems as if you were reading some kind of code or cipher. Interestingly enough, Francis Bacon complained loudly about such Irregularities, back in the 1600s. He wrote a superb pamphlet, Concerning Typography, in which he suggests a standardized system. It didn't catch on, though, till the early 1800s. Baffling!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


I'm a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. It's called the Fano Club, and it's made up entirely of people who took the Robert Browning course at Baylor's Browning Library and subsequently made a pilgrimage to Fano, Italy.

Robert and Elizabeth moved to Florence for Elizabeth's health. The story goes that, vacationing in a tiny town on the east coast, they found themselves in a chapel there, where they saw a remarkable painting by Guercino, a minor but brilliant painter from a time and place in which brilliant painters could be minor. Browning was struck by this painting, which depicted a guardian angel protecting a child praying at a tomb, and wrote a poem about it. The poem later wound up in his collection Men and Women.

Some decades ago, a professor also found himself in Italy, and decided to go to Fano and see if that painting was still there. It was so difficult for him (this being an age when much was made in Italy of the issue of trains running on time, one recalls) to get there, and, once there, to find the painting, that he figured anyone who could do the same would earn a place in a select group of folk. Over the years, various ones of his students put it on their Grand Tour itinerary, and some person of means gave some amount of money to pay for the annual dinner, and that's the Fano Club.

I went to my first Fano dinner as a spy. Or at least a hired hand. It was 1987. I was a sophomore, taking the Browning course with a bunch of seniors. Toward the end of the year, our professor, Jack Herring, encouraged us to do some sort of creative project related to Browning. The obvious choice for me was to set something to music. I chose "Meeting at Night" and "Parting at Morning," a pair of short poems from Dramatic Romances and Lyrics. I recorded it on a four-track cassette recorder, with piano and synth, and my own voice mixed rather low.

Dr Herring liked it so much that he had me lug my stereo to the dinner and play it as the evening's entertainment. That was my introduction to the Fano Club.

In 1995, on my own Grand Tour, I stopped through Fano (still damnably difficult), and wrote a postcard to Dr Herring: "Oh to be in Fano, now that April's here!" I thought that was enormously clever, being a reference to a poem Browning wrote from Florence, expressing his homesickness for England. (The man never got over being ignored for England's poet laureate position, which is odd for a man who wrote "Open my heart and you shall see / Graved inside it, Italy.") That May 7th, Browning's birthday, I went to my first dinner as a member. Every year there's a reading of the poem by one of the members, but occasionally they switch it up, and some singer, usually a Music School student, performs one of the several musical settings of the poem.

This year, I decided to add to the canon. We got a singer lined up. Several hours before the dinner, though, he bailed. Drat! Musicians! (I seem to remember something about pipers and promises....) Well, there's always next year. I need to get some great singer in to record the thing; it's a nice enough piece to be worth the effort. Meanwhile, I did a demo of it in my best imitation-classical voice just to see what it would sound like.

I also dug around and found the old piece on its aging cassette. It's based on short, lilting poems, and has a much catchier melody. The new piece is more like arioso, reflecting Browning's prosy style. Earlier composers that I'm aware of solved the problem of the break in "The Guardian-Angel," five stanzas in, where the speaker turns from the painting to the audience, by simply leaving out the rest. I decided that the rest is still part of the work, and left it in as spoken word. (My ears have become attuned to the possibility of accompanied spoken word by Ben Folds's beautiful project last year with William Shatner, Has Been.)

Two Browning songs, based on three Browning poems, recorded twenty years apart to the week:

The Guardian Angel

Meeting at Night and Parting at Morning